Friday, April 28, 2006

A Review of Marley & Me by John Grogan

I don't go into bookstores very often anymore, as I prefer to do most of my shopping online. However, I have been shopping a lot in recent months and one thing I've noticed is that the book Marley & Me by John Grogan -- along with the picture of that adorable puppy on the cover -- is everywhere. The book came out in October 2005, and has been on the New York Times Bestseller list since that time, which is a total of about 26 weeks or so. It debuted at number 10, but on the strength of excellent reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations, the book made it all the way to the coveted number one spot.

I can't say that I was particularly interested in reading it when it first came out because it didn't seem that the author, a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia, would have anything overly interesting to say about owning a dog. So I held off. But the great reviews kept on coming, the book kept on selling, and those puppy dog eyes kept on staring at me whenever I stepped into a bookstore. I finally bought a copy last weekend, hoping that the story would be worth the money I spent.

Marley & Me is subtitled Life & Love With the World's Worst Dog. This struck me as an odd title, because, with the exception of Cujo by Stephen King, most books about dogs sing the praises of the canine species. Yet here was this one that purports to tell about "the world's worst" dog. I was intrigued and wanted to see what this dog could possibly have done to earn the title of the world's worst.

The author starts off by describing a scenario that many people no doubt recognize from personal experience. I know I did. Grogan had just gotten married to his longtime girlfriend Jenny, and they were settling into home life together. They had been contemplating children, but since Jenny couldn't even keep a houseplant alive, there were a few reservations about just what kind of parents they would make. So Jenny had the bright idea to get a puppy to see if they would be able to handle that kind of responsibility. After all, both Jenny and John had had dogs as children and knew that they would want to get another dog eventually.

So Jenny found a classified ad offering purebred Labrador retriever puppies, and the Grogans went to visit the breeder, promising themselves that they would only "look." Yeah, right. As you might expect, they ended up selecting a puppy that night (they chose the one that passed John's special "scare test"), and were told to come back in a few weeks, after which time the puppy would be weaned.

And that was how Marley first entered their lives. The author goes on to recount numerous stories about Marley's puppyhood, adolescence, adulthood, and, eventually, old age. Anyone who has ever had a dog can tell you that you always remember the distinct stages because of the different behaviors that occur in each. For example, a puppyhood filled with chewed possessions, destroyed furniture, and potty training missteps is enough to test anyone's patience. Plus, puppies have a seemingly endless supply of energy and never tire of playing. But once adolescence and adulthood arrive, most dogs calm down enough to make taking care of them much easier on their owners.

Somehow, though, that calming phase never really happened with Marley. He was a bundle of energy from the moment the Grogans brought him home, almost right up until the very end. The author tells us tales of mass destruction that only dog owners would believe -- or understand. Marley's favorite pastime seemed to be eating household objects that should have been strictly off-limits, including: garbage, jewelry, paychecks, shoes, and pillows.

Grogan provides readers with ample evidence to back up the claim that Marley was the world's worst dog. For one thing, the Grogans had trouble containing Marley whenever they had to leave the house. In their first home, they were able to keep Marley in an attached garage that was made of cement. It was pretty much indestructible -- or so they thought. Then a thunderstorm came along when they weren't home and they were suddenly, and gruesomely, introduced to Marley's greatest fear. Yes, the dog had a terrible phobia of storms, and bloodied himself by trying to escape the garage on many occasions. He clawed at the wooden door, tearing it to splinters, and cut up his face and paws in the process. For another thing, Marley didn't take to well to training. He was expelled from obedience school the first time he went, and seemed to have trouble walking on a leash for most of his life. Marley would constantly pull and strain on the leash, often dragging the author or his wife on a wild ride behind him.

But of course Grogan wouldn't have written this book if he didn't love and appreciate Marely deeply, so we are also treated to many instances of kindness and loyalty from man's best friend. One of the most touching scenes in the entire book was the one after Jenny and John first learned of Jenny's miscarriage. They were very excited at the prospect of being parents, so the news was obviously a crushing blow. Jenny had a hard time dealing with the news, but she didn't cry until she came home and was alone with Marley. The dog, who had shown no signs of ever slowing down before, somehow sensed that this was a very serious and somber moment. So he calmly laid his head in Jenny's lap and stood silently by while she gave vent to her grief.

I have to say that I found Marley & Me to be an extremely well-written memoir. I think the author had a tough task in front of him. The focus of the story was supposed to be about the dog, but there was really no way to concentrate only on the dog without bringing the family's life and struggles into the picture. But at the same time, Grogan realized that his reader's didn't buy the book just to read about him and his wife, so it was necessary to engage in a delicate balancing act throughout. Grogan handles it surprisingly well, however, and the story reads pretty smoothly while staying focused on the major events. The chapters are short, so they go by rather quickly. It's easy to read a good chunk of the book in one sitting, and to finish it in just a few hours.

As with all stories about dogs, this one ends on a sad note. The last portion of the book deals with Marley's advancing age, declining health, and ultimately, his peaceful death. By that time, the reader is wholly invested in Marley -- and, indeed, the entire Grogan clan -- so the death is bound to hit you as hard as if your own beloved pet were going through the same thing.

I have read a few negative reviews of Marley & Me, which is not surprising, I guess. Not everyone has the same tastes, so it would be highly unreasonable to expect everyone to love this book. Some of the criticisms I've seen come from people who feel that the author was actually "cruel" to his dog. One reason for this is that the author used a choke-style collar on Marley to try to get the dog to learn how to walk on a leash. Others couldn't believe that the Grogans kept Marley in the garage when they left the house, or that they went on a week-long vacation to Disney World when the dog was old and weak.

Although I am not here to defend Grogan, I will say that I don't agree with these criticisms. Many dog obedience experts advocate the use of choke-style collars on big or uncontrollable dogs because that's often the only way to get them to stop pulling. The alternative could be that the dog just breaks completely free and runs into oncoming traffic, which is a scenario that actually does happen from time to time. In addition, I think there's nothing wrong with the way the Grogan's left Marley in the cement garage. They were living in Florida, after all, so it was never cold. And because the garage was cement, it was probably a heck of a lot cooler than a wooden garage would have been. Plus, Marley was huge and wasn't responsible enough to have the run of the house while they were gone. As for the complaints about the family going on vacation, all I have to say is that the world doesn't stop just because pets -- or people, for that matter -- get old. The Grogans had three children at that time, and couldn't be expected to just hang around the house until Marley passed away.

Overall, I thought that reading Marley & Me was an amazing experience. The complete love and devotion from both owner and pet were evident on every single page of the book. I've had three dogs so far in my life, and they've all had vastly different personalities. Dogs are sometimes aloof, sometimes very clingy, and sometimes in between those two extremes. But usually, they all have a common denominator, and that is the fact that they love unconditionally. If you take care of your dog and provide a decent shelter, the dog will return your love a hundredfold.

Some people have said that Marley & Me has too narrow of an audience to make a truly big impact on the reading world. That might very well be the case, since I can't imagine someone who has never owned a dog being able to understand the sheer joy and utter devastation that comes from the relationship. But Grogan doesn't pretend that this book is supposed to be a literary masterpiece that's supposed to endure through the ages. I took it for what it was: a loving, heartfelt tribute to one of the best friends and companions a person could ever ask for. If you read it like that, and then apply the general themes to your own life, you will feel rewarded for having "met" Marley and the Grogans.

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